opening up sacred texts

(applying the Hatha Yoga Pradipika to your life)

In the study of sacred texts, personal reflection on the meaning of the words leads to true understanding – true because it is rooted in experience. Swami Radha at her desk, 1980

To be relevant today, sacred texts need to be reflected on by modern practitioners. I encourage people to open up the symbolic meaning of ancient writings by creating their own commentary. Here is my example on the first verses of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the foundation texts on Hatha Yoga, which gives context to the practice.

“I salute the primeval Lord (Siva) who taught (Parvati) the Hatha Yoga Vidya, which is as a stairway to those who wish to attain the lofty Raja Yoga.” (I:1) “I salute the primeval Lord.” In other words, I chant Om Namah Sivaya and accept the teachings of this aspect of the Divine. Siva is the masculine – energy unmanifest; and Parvati is the feminine – energy manifest. Raja means Kingly or Royal. It indicates that Hatha Yoga should not be limited to the physical, but should aspire to Raja Yoga – the ethics and principles, the study of mind, its modification and control. We have to study ourselves to understand what is beyond the ordinary.

“Svatmarama Yogin, having saluted his Lord and Guru, teaches the Hatha Vidya solely for the attainment of Raja Yoga.” (I:2)

Ask yourself what it means to be a yogin. If you salute the “Lord and the Guru,” you are accepting the outer and the inner Guru right from the beginning. Don’t allow your ego to escape, thinking you don’t need a teacher.

“To those who wander in the darkness of conflicting doctrines, being ignorant of Raja Yoga, the most compassionate Svatmarama Yogin offers the Light of Hatha Vidya.” (I:3)

“In the darkness of conflicting doctrines” is a very important point. Our minds think, “I want to be broad-minded and open.” But can you learn six languages at once? Would you not mix up the rules of grammar? So limit yourself to one school of thought. If you accept the essence, the Light of yoga, you can get away from doctrines that actually create conflicts. Later you may recognize that another school of thought practises the same thing differently.

Clarify what you mean by “compassionate,” especially in your teacher. Is it more compassionate to let you keep hurting yourself or to challenge the patterns that result in pain?

The “Light of Hatha Yoga” is clarity of understanding. If the light is too faint, you don’t see clearly. You may see a piece of paper with something written on it, but you cannot decipher the words. You have to increase the Light of understanding. If you are drawn to Hatha Yoga, then this is your best way for now, and only for now. Hatha Yoga can help you to eliminate restlessness, to understand the body and its expression, and at its highest, to honour the body as a spiritual tool.

“The Hatha Yoga is a sheltering monastery for those scorched by all three types of pain. To those engaged in the practice of every kind of Yoga, Hatha Yoga is like the tortoise that supports the world.” (I:10)

There is physical, emotional and mental pain. We may think that renunciation is painful until we find that it really helps us overcome pain and avoid future pain.

“Hatha Yoga is like the tortoise” in that it gives a basic foundation for Jnana Yoga and Mantra Yoga, where you sit motionless for many hours. Hatha Yoga supports the body so the metabolism stays balanced and the body alert.

“The Yogin desirous of obtaining ‘Siddhi’ should keep the Hatha Yoga very secret. For it is potent when kept secret and ineffective when injudiciously revealed.” (I:11)

Gurudev Sivananda told some people not to talk about yoga for two years. Keeping secret what you know starves the ego that wants to show off. By keeping it secret, the powers collect like drops of water in a container.

“The Yogin desirous…” Look at what your desires are and how you fulfill them. Which do you satisfy and which are you willing to drop? How serious are some desires? In other words, what are your priorities?

“He who practises Hatha Yoga should live alone in a small matha [seclusion] situated in a place free from rocks, water and fire to the extent of a bow’s length and in a virtuous, well-ruled kingdom, which is prosperous and free of disturbances.” (I:12)

“Live alone.” At least have a place to practise Hatha Yoga by yourself. “Free from rocks, water and fire.” Rocks are obstacles; water is continually quenching the thirst for worldly desires; and fire is a common word for the passions. If we can’t conquer our desires, at least be at “bow’s length.” The “virtuous well-ruled kingdom” can be your own household. You have to be free of financial worry; otherwise your mind will dwell there. What are your other disturbances?

“The matha should have a small door, and should be without windows; it should be level and without any holes; it should be neither too high, too low, nor too long.” (I:13)

In India where there are snakes, tigers and rats, this description may be taken literally. But it can also be symbolic. Like our dreams, the texts can be seen on many levels. “A small door” could mean the ego has to bend and be diminished to enter. “No windows” could signify no projections through to the outside. One should always stay level and there should be no holes to escape from the commitment of practice. Your practice should neither be too big nor too little. Everything in your life should be balanced and coordinated.

I hope this brief example shows that by looking into the sacred texts in this way, you can enrich your own practice by bringing in depth of thinking. This same approach can be applied to other texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras and the mantras of the Kundalini system. Make them relevant to you now.

Web Exclusive: click here to listen to Swami Radha, founder of Hidden Language Hatha Yoga, as she describes the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of her approach. This material is provided courtesy of Yasodhara Ashram's Lightwaves Newsletter.

A pioneer in bringing yoga to the West, Swami Sivananda Radha is the author of 10 classic books on yoga, including Kundalini Yoga for the West and Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language. Her teachings focus on developing awareness and quality in life.

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